SHE WAS walking to her door, probably fumbling with her keys, arms full of groceries, when it happened. It could have been anyone walking through this particular hallway at the wrong time - we all carry tons of groceries home, making noise in the hall, perhaps sweating a little under the weight of milk, juice, food. What we don't expect is to be attacked by a vicious dog a few feet from the safety of home. Diane Whipple died that day - mauled by a rare Presa Canario Mastiff that lived next door. It's up to the courts who's at fault - who should have known about the dangerous capacity of these dogs, and who should have kept them restrained.
Regardless of the outcome of that decision, however, the courts have another landmark determination to make. Whipple was homosexual, and she shared her apartment and her life with Sharon Smith. Smith has filed a civil suit for wrongful death against the owners of the dog, but whether that suit will ever see a court date is in doubt.
Had Whipple been heterosexual and married, the decision would be easy - her husband would be the beneficiary of the estate and would be able to seek justice through a civil suit. But because a woman loved her instead of a man, any compensation will ignore the person with whom she shared her life.
Whipple lived in San Francisco, a city with a reputation for forward-thinking, open-mindedness and tolerance. Despite the ease with which Whipple and her partner, Smith, may have been able to live their lives, however, death will not be as easy. Even in San Francisco, the two were considered roommates and not life partners in the same sense as a married couple, so Smith cannot speak for Whipple in death, through a civil suit or otherwise.
The difference is a marriage certificate - something a man and a woman can obtain, but a woman and a woman or a man and a man can't, no matter how tolerant San Francisco is. Whipple had some possessions, the leftovers of 30-some years on this planet. She also was a star athlete and popular college coach earning a good salary - one good enough to pay for half an apartment in the super-expensive city. Because of her death, her partner is deprived of not only Whipple's company and a life partner, but also the benefits of Whipple's salary - the other half of high San Francisco rent, the shared costs of living in an expensive city, and the general support that comes from a partner - just like a heterosexual partner would be.
One of the foundations of our country is the equal protection clause. In the past, it has been applied to end racial discrimination, gender discrimination and even age discrimination. In this case and in many others, it should be used to end sexual discrimination. When a person chooses to spend his or her life with another person, the two should have all the protections of a husband and wife union.
People argue against homosexual unions in many ways: There is no way to guarantee that it's a forever union. So what? Heterosexual couples get divorced every day. By that rationale, wives and husbands also shouldn't receive medical benefits, life insurance and the like.
People also argue that it's immoral. Based on whose morals? Another basic tenet of our country is the separation of church and state - that leaves little room for lawmakers to argue that only certain types of love and union are acceptable. The basic fact is that homosexuals, too, often find that one special person to spend their lives with; once they do, that person should not be discriminated against because of their sex. Smith is suffering from the loss of her partner just as much as a husband would. She will suffer the emotional burden, the financial burden, the giant gap where a person who bought groceries and carried them home used to be.
The California courts have an historic opportunity to stand up for equal protection in this upcoming case. If they find that this was not an official union and thus that they cannot grant Smith any benefits, state legislatures must step in and find a way to grant all people equality. A dog attack could have happened to anyone - unjust treatment by antiquated laws doesn't have to.
(Emily Harding's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)